Plastic is everywhere. You’re likely wearing it right now – polyester, fleece, sneakers – and will likely ingest some with your next meal.
While most of us recognize the problem of plastic waste polluting our oceans and harming marine life, we don’t realize that plastic and the toxins that leach from it accumulate in our bodies. Medical researchers are now examining levels of plastic-derived chemical compounds in humans to better understand the health effects.
How do chemicals from plastic enter the body?
To answer this, it’s important to understand the following.
• Because plastic is not biodegradable, it only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces over time, producing microparticles or microfibers, some too small to see. Millions of tons of plastic debris in the oceans continually produce these microparticles, which are mistaken for food by plankton, fish and marine animals, thus entering our food chain. On land, our homes are full of plastics and synthetics that constantly create dust and microparticles. Some skin products and cosmetics contain plastic microbeads, though they are being phased out. We breathe them in, eat them and even send these particles from our homes to the ocean via the washing machine and sink water going down the drain. Plastic microfibers have even been found in drinking water samples.
• During plastic production, chemical compounds are added to produce hardness, softness, flexibility, flame resistance, etc. These chemicals can leach from the plastic and into food that comes in contact with it during processing, cooking, packaging and reheating, and can also be absorbed through the skin.
Do plastic-derived substances pose risk?
So what if you eat a little plastic or absorb some of these chemicals? Even at low concentrations, phthalates can interfere with the action of hormones, and exposure during pregnancy has been associated with lower male reproductive hormones; similar exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers has been associated with lower intelligence. Phthalates may increase risk for miscarriage, gestational diabetes and premature birth.
Perfluorinated alkylate substances (PFASs), used in stain-proof fabric, waterproof clothing and some food packaging, build up in the food chain and persist in the body. PFASs are linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, hormone disruption and immune system dysfunction.
To reduce exposure to plastic-derived chemicals, use and wear less plastic and eat unprocessed food that has not been stored or cooked in plastic containers.
Following are some specific suggestions.
• Buy and store unprocessed food and beverages in glass or stainless-steel containers.
• Cook in stainless-steel pots and pans using stainless-steel or wood utensils.
• Minimize eating or drinking from plastic.
• Use a wooden cutting board for food preparation.
• Decline straws and encourage businesses to provide only paper or natural straws on request.
• Never microwave or boil in plastic containers.
• Use glass baby bottles.
• Use cloth diapers.
• Purchase furniture made of natural products; sleep on a natural-material mattress and use cotton bedding.
• Replace polyvinyl chloride products such as flooring, blinds and shower curtains with cotton, bamboo or polyethylene vinyl acetate.
• Shower with a bar of fragrance-free soap and a cotton washcloth instead of shower gel from a plastic bottle and a mesh shower sponge.
• Get the plastic off your skin by minimizing use of lotions and deodorants; look for phthalate-free, paraben-free, fragrance-free products.
• Give feedback to companies, stores and restaurants to discourage single-use plastics.
• Weigh in with your legislators on plastic reduction proposals.
• Encourage schools and workplaces to choose plastic-free cafeteria items.
• Support local efforts to reduce plastic waste in the environment.
It will take some effort, but we can all make a real difference in protecting our health and the environment.
Donna Staton MD/MPH is a public health pediatrician.